Is Apple Really ‘Cannibalizing’ Everything?

Is Steve Jobs a 'cannibal'?

If you’re in the netbook, notebook, PC, hand-held gaming, newspaper or DVD business, Apple wants to eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti — at least according to a huge number of observers who don’t know what the word “cannibalize” means.

For example, Microsoft’s general manager for Windows product management, Gavriella Schuster, said this month that the netbook market is “definitely getting cannibalized” by the iPad.

Wait, “cannibalized”? What does that mean, exactly? And why is everybody saying it?

ChangeWave Research says iPads are “cannibalizing” tablets. But that’s nothing when you consider that UBS analyst Maynard Um says iPads are “cannibalizing the whole PC industry.” (Actually, lots of people are saying that.) And others, such as NPD, are saying the opposite.

NPD Group is also saying that Apple’s iOS is “cannibalizing” sales of hand-held gaming systems.

Newspaper mogul James Murdoch says iPad apps are “cannibalizing sales of physical newspapers.”

A representative from Deutsche Bank even once predicted that Apple TV would “cannibalize a good chunk of the… DVD player market.”

And Apple isn’t just “cannibalizing” other products. It’s even “cannibalizing” its own. For example, Rodman & Renshaw analyst Ashok Kumar says the MacBook Air is cannibalizing the iPad. But the cannibalization is mutual: The iPad is “cannibalizing” low-end MacBooks, according to Kaufman Brothers analyst Shaw Wu.

Why These Experts Should Eat Their Words

Enough! The “cannibalize” metaphor is overused and, worse, inaccurate.

In literal terms, of course, cannibalization is when one human being eats the flesh of another.

Figuratively, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to cannibalize something is to “take parts from one unit for incorporation in, and completion of, another (of a similar kind). Hence, cannibalization, the removal of a part (of something) for incorporation in something else.”

By that definition, the claim by Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer that Apple would “cannibalize ourselves” — specifically old-school iPod sales with iPod Touch and iPhone — is the right use of the cannibal metaphor. Apple has knowingly taken both customers and iPod functionality from one product line and incorporated it into another.

However, in most of these other uses, the word “cannibalize” is completely erroneous. Apple isn’t taking anything from netbooks, notebooks, PCs, hand-held gaming systems, newspapers or DVDs and incorporating what it has taken into its own products.

Instead, Apple is providing an alternative to these platforms and media, and some customers are choosing Apple’s alternative in cases where without Apple they would have presumably chosen the older model.

That’s not cannibalism. That’s just capitalism.

I know “cannibalize” is more dramatic and bloody than “win market share from,” but come on, people. Enough drama already. Can’t those of us who use words professionally at least care about what they mean?

Hannibal Lecter would be happy to eat your face. But even he wouldn’t be so sloppy as to misuse the word “cannibalize.”

About the author

Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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Posted in Apple, AppleTV, Gaming, iOS, iPad, iPhone, iPod, iPod touch, Top stories |